Inside Parliament: Last post sounds in Commons for treaty Bill

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Indy Politics
The Commons bade a weary farewell to the Maastricht treaty legislation last night after 210 hours of debate spread over almost a year, and sent it along the corridor to the House of Lords.

Fewer than half of the MPs voted for the European Communities (Amendment) Bill as it was given a Third Reading by 292 votes 112. The measure will now come under the tender gaze of Baroness Thatcher, who, according to one European commentator quoted approvingly by Douglas Hurd, was the inspiration for '40 per cent of the intellectual content of the Community today'.

Not least among those surprised by this paean to Lady Thatcher was her predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, Sir Edward Heath. Lady Thatcher's 'intellectual capacity' was 'not a characteristic I myself had noted before', he told the House.

It is almost a year since the Bill was given a Second Reading by a majority of 244 votes. Before yesterday's Third Reading, MPs had spent 204 hours debating it, over 600 amendments were tabled and the Committee Stage alone lasted 23 days.

Recalling these endeavours as he opened the debate, Mr Hurd said: 'In some parts of the House there may be, I cannot tell, a sense of relief that the ordeal is almost over. But as the poet observed, 'even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea'.'

Mr Hurd and his Labour shadow, Jack Cunningham, clashed once more over the opt-out from the Social Chapter on workers' rights agreed by the other 11 EC states. Mr Cunningham ascribed the Government's 'pig- headed obstinacy' over the Social Chapter to Labour's decision to abstain in the vote.

Linking Labour's tactic to the party's lurches in attitude to Europe over 20 years, Mr Hurd said: 'They're tired of 'yes' and tired of 'no' and so they're going to abstain. They came here from all parts of the kingdom to abstain in person.'

Not all of them; intervening, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said 'at least 60' MPs would vote against the Bill because the Maastricht treaty would take away from Parliament the power to decide economic policy and give it to unelected central bankers.

Conservative opponents of the Bill repeatedly interrupted and barracked Mr Hurd as he sought, in vain, to assure them that the treaty was a move away from a federalist Europe. Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills, said that in all the hours of debate, the House had never returned to the first principle of democratic government and accountable government. 'This is not a democratic treaty. It contradicts 'government by the people for the people',' Mr Shepherd said. The Government was giving more weight to 'highly anti-democratic' institutional arrangements.

Rejecting the charge, Mr Hurd said the MP was 'shutting his eyes to what is in the treaty because he wishes to haunt himself with what is not in the treaty'. Another Tory critic, Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, said the treaty was 'a half-way house' to EC control of defence and foreign policy and asked Mr Hurd to say he would not agree at a later stage to them coming 'within the ambit of European institutions'.

'I cannot say what will happen in 1996,' Mr Hurd replied, referring to the planned EC summit to review economic and political union. 'I don't wish to commit this government to what will happen in 1996 or thereafter. I simply say what is in the treaty today, where this whole area is firmly in the sphere of co-operation between governments.'

Though Sir Edward supported the Bill, he criticised the Social Chapter opt-out and took issue with Mr Hurd over which of them was out of date in his attitude to the EC. Mr Hurd said it was those, like Sir Edward, who believed in 'steady integration', while Sir Edward said it was Mr Hurd who was out of date for suggesting that 'the time for community ideals are over and nation states are the answer to everything'.

John Major, at Question Time, had emphasised that the treaty placed no obligation on Britain to rejoin the exchange rate mechanism - an expression which will not have pleased Sir Edward, who favours a single currency. Without one, 'the single market is going to be chipped at the edges, then it is going to be cracked, and then it will disappear', he said.

But Maastricht was not the Prime Minister's biggest problem as he faced an almost inevitable challenge from John Smith, the Labour leader, over the report that millions of better-off pensioners and parents might lose their entitlement to free prescriptions. Mr Smith asked: 'Can the Prime Minister give the House a guarantee that the Government will not make millions of pensioners and children pay for prescriptions?'

Mr Major took the long the route to saying 'no', beginning with an attack on the Labour leader for not welcoming the third successive monthly fall in unemployment. He had 'optimistically' thought Mr Smith might do so. 'I should perhaps have known the Right Honourable Gentleman better.'

'So there is no doubt either to him or to millions of people up and down the country, let me explain to him exactly the review that is taking place on public expenditure. My answer to every scare story Mr Smith produces will be same and I hear he was peddling them earlier on today.

'The Chief Secretary (to the Treasury, Michael Portillo) has been instructed to examine all our public expenditure, to ensure it's well targeted, to ensure it delivers value for money, and to see where savings in taxpayers' money can be found.

'But he knows in doing so he must protect the position of the most vulnerable members of society and that is what he is doing. At the moment the Chief Secretary is being presented with options. He has not yet considered those options. He's not yet selected those options worth further consideration. No decisions have been made. None are imminent. They will not be made until the public expenditure round in the autumn. Many will need to be discarded, but we do need to examine public expenditure and we will both maintain our manifesto commitments and protect the most vulnerable in society.

'Perhaps the Right Honourable Gentleman will now give up his tedious, weekly shroud waving.'

As Mr Smith observed: 'I should have known better than to expect a straight answer to this question.'